Major League Soccer’s playoff pace, timing utterly nonsensical

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The pace and rhythm of Major League Soccer’s playoff stinks. It’s broken, largely ineffective and fairly nonsensical. There’s no other way to say it.

It’s really about a larger problem with MLS priorities: League stability now largely achieved, steady growth now a pleasant reality, Major League Soccer can now lean into the business of refining its product. And nowhere is refining (“reforming” actually, in this case) more important than in year-long scheduling. The concerns are myriad, including the problematic issue of playing through FIFA fixture dates, TV time slots that don’t make a lot of sense, the loss of opportunity in a lack of simultaneous final-day kickoffs and more.

Over the last few days, we’ve seen another troublesome, pot-holed road of MLS scheduling: a playoff docket that works against the league in so many ways, in limiting ticket sales and in stripping away any chance to build meaningful post-season momentum.

Let’s start here: Major League Soccer is committed to its playoff system. Not everyone agrees it should be this way; a day never passes in MLS supporter circles without impassioned debate over whether traditional world soccer models – single table, no playoffs, plus promotion-relegation – should decide the championship. But American sports are about playoffs, and I happen to believe that’s fine.

So MLS is committed to playoffs, and fair enough. League deciders favor the playoffs so much that three years ago they added two teams to the post-season field, getting more teams involved not only in the post-season, but in the truly exciting stretch run, the dramatic playoff races that (league officials hope) create memories, adding interest and fans along the way. So, fair enough to all that.

But it makes no sense to draw a big red circle around your post-season and point toward that show cow all year – and then fail to make it a priority in overall scheduling.  The league builds and builds and builds toward the playoffs – and then “Poof!”  So much of it is over in about 10 minutes.

(MORE: Dynamo president Chris Canetti talks about low turnout)

If we isolate scheduling, it really looks like the playoffs are just something MLS sticks on the back of the regular season. As in, “All right, let’s get this over with!”

First thing that happens: Teams often get two or three days to sell the first match. That’s why Seattle had just 32,204 in attendance for its elimination game against Colorado, a contest that kicked off just two-plus days after the final regular season kick. A few days after that, Seattle was back on the field again, this time playing before 38,507. Both are great numbers in domestic soccer – but well below average for the Seattle Sounders.

Along with the final regular season match, MLS policy forced Sounders FC to ask its fans to buy tickets three times within seven days. And that’s a tough ask. Bottom line, when Seattle is having trouble selling tickets to important matches, something has gone very wrong.

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Both Seattle playoff matches at home so far fell well south of this swell attendance number; this was the final regular season match at CenturyLink.

Houston had issues selling playoff  tickets, too, no real surprise considering the Dynamo didn’t know it was in the post-season until final day – and then had seven days to sell two matches. (Yes, other sports, NBA, NHL, etc., face tight sales windows at playoff time. But as we all know, and yet sometimes conveniently forget during these conversations, MLS is not the NBA or even the NHL.)

TV becomes problematic, too, with so little time provided to sort out the particulars. MLS had major trouble ginning up network interest in last week’s elimination matches. Neither of tonight’s matches (where the league’s largest market club, New York, could be eliminated) will appear on an English-language national outlet.

Aside from ticket sales and missed opportunities to create sponsor involvement and TV interest, MLS gives itself and its clubs zero chance to build some real marketing momentum along the post-season way.

The season ends. Three or four days later, two teams are gone. A week after that, four more are out.

Think about that: Within 11 days of the final regular season whistle, 6 of 10 teams are gone! The bulk of the playoffs – remember, that big red circle the league has pointed to over an entire year – are history in just 11 days.

That is what MLS wants its playoffs to be about?

The single-game, 4th-vs.-5th elimination match is fine – but put it on the weekend after the final regular season match. (And for heaven’s sakes, stop putting one of the first MLS playoff contests on Halloween! People are out and about, not home watching sports.)

(MORE: MLS loses opportunities with no final-day simultaneous kickoffs)

Then stretch these conference semifinal series over two weekends. Give them some room to breathe. We see fantastic momentum build during playoff series runs in baseball, basketball and hockey. Those are multi-game sets, of course, and MLS is fine with its two-game, home-and-away format – but give them a chance to create some energy in the market, at least.

None of this even addresses issues of fairness or technical quality. Play, travel, play, travel … that’s hardly a recipe for great soccer.

Mostly though, MLS just doesn’t give itself a chance to exploit the meaningful post-season narratives, the memory makers that create club history and build legacy. And that’s a real shame.

It’s not that difficult: Add a couple more regular season weeknight dates – and then avoid them at all cost during the post-season.

Generally, when creating the overall schedule, MLS needs to start with a playoff schedule that makes sense, and then back into the regular season from there.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.